The syntax-morphology trade-off - Speaker: Kilu von Prince

The syntax-morphology trade-off

Kilu von Prince
HU Berlin

It has long been asserted that all languages probably have roughly the same degree of overall complexity, although this hypothesis has since come under attack (McWhorter, 2001; Sampson, 2009; Trudgill, 2011). One particularly wide-spread assumption about complexity trade-offs between different structural levels concerns the relation between syntax and morphology: a rich inventory of morphemes that carry information about argument structure allows for a highly flexible syntax, while a lack of such morphology is compensated for by a more rigid word order (Futrell et al., 2015; Gildea & Jaeger, 2016). Despite its popularity, the first systematic test of this hypothesis is as recent as Koplenig et al. (2017). In my talk, I will outline the state-of-the art of the debate and suggest that data from existing small, but richly annotated corpora may provide crucial new insights.


Futrell, Richard, Mahowald, Kyle, & Gibson, Edward. 2015. Large-scale evidence of dependency length minimization in 37 languages. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(33), 10336–10341.

Gildea, Daniel, & Jaeger, T. Florian. 2016. Human languages order information efficiently. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, preprint.

Koplenig, Alexander, Meyer, Peter, Wolfer, Sascha, & Müller-Spitzer, Carolin. 2017. The statistical trade-off between word order and word structure – largescale evidence for the principle of least effort. Plos one, 12(3).

McWhorter, John H. 2001. The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology, 5, 125–166.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2009. A linguistic axiom challenged. Pages 1–18 of: Sampson, Geoffrey, Gil, David, & Trudgill, Peter (eds), Language complexity as an evolving variable. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford Univeristy Press.

If you would like to meet with the speaker please contact Katrin Menzel.